How do you do justice to a film which (1) effectively uses the most contemporary of styles, (nonlinear, Tarantino-esque exposition, hand-held cameras, grainy, newsreel-ish cinematography, etc) (2) takes moral/philosophical issues seriously and (3) deploys superb actors quite effectively in service of a script that poses no easy answers to the most fundamental of life's questions? Does it get an "A" for effort, (in the tradition of grade school report cards) even though it ultimately lacks the passionate vitality of its predecessor, made for a tenth of the cost? That's the dilemma facing those judging this second effort by Mexico's Alejandro Inarritu, whose first movie, Amores Perros, caused such a sensation when released in 2000. Armed here with a Hollywood-sized budget and well-known actors, (Sean Penn, Benicio Del Torro and Naomi Watts) the director takes the single flaw in his first film and devotes this entire movie to it, turning the latter into a somewhat pale imitation of the former.
As he did in Perros, Inarritu again weaves three stories stemming from a single incident---in this case, a fatal hit and run accident. A disillusioned mathematician, a distraught widow and a born-again ex-con wrestle with existential meaninglessness, despair and the loss of religious faith in the aftermath of the suffering each endures as a result of the accident. Penn faces imminent death due to a defective heart, Watt a lifetime of substance abuse and Del Toro the destruction of his family; further description of the storyline would undercut the director's utilization of flashbacks and prematurely give away the plot.
Penn's intensity is used to great effect here, producing a performance much more nuanced than his role in Mystic River, but Del Toro's manages to outshine him, playing a hardscrabble loser who finds his prison-formed religious faith mocked by a fate that delivers unexpected blessings only to have them destroy his belief in God and himself. Naomi Watts struggles with the weakest of the three leading roles and her work can't stand comparison with Melissa Leo, who plays Del Toro's trailer-trash wife with an aching mixture of brusque affection and wary candor.
Inarritu isn't afraid of raising big issues--the high cost of personal responsibility, the necessity of hope, the role love plays in making pain bearable; but despite his often superior presentation, the director never makes these themes come fully alive in his characters' lives. In his vibrant Amores Perros, the director displayed a gleeful cynicism worthy of Voltaire, presenting a world of carefully planned human endeavor undone by a random event that skewers human purposefulness as effortlessly as a shis kebab on the grill. That film vividly presented raw slices of Mexican life and let audiences draw their own conclusions about what that meant for its characters. The film sagged only when it focused too intrusively on the possible motivations of a political hit man estranged from his daughter; here, Inarritu moves his characters' soul-searching front and center, trading verisimilitude for the chance to lecture his audience on its proper response to his story. Like The Human Stain earlier this fall, what begins here as carefully observed human drama ends as rather stilted artistic observation. Yet Grams it deserves careful viewing because of the provocative questions it asks and the opportunity it provides to confront uncomfortable subjects with the gravity they deserve.
The verdict? A somber examination of the human condition that loses in spontaneity what it finds in gravitas.
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